How this British Countess Became the Godmother of Psychedelics
Amanda Feilding, 76, has argued for over half a century that psychedelic compounds will save humanity from ego-imposed neurosis. She has faith in science and believes the prohibitionist era is over, but she is in a hurry. To advance faster, she enlisted a Brazilian team in her lysergic crusade.
Room 224 at Princess Grace Hospital in London looks like an oﬀice. There are folders and boxes of paper lying on the ﬂoor of the cheery talking patient Amanda Feilding, 76. You wouldn’t have been able to tell that the Countess of Wemyss and March a title acquired in 1995 by marrying James Charteris, Lord Neidpath, under an Egyptian pyramid was currently hospitalized, apart from her bandaged right arm.
The hospital visit turned out to be the only opportunity for a lengthy conversation, as it had been scheduled for months. The interview would coincide with the psychedelic Breaking Convention conference. Amanda, however, fell ill and had to be hospitalized – which did not prevent her from escaping a day earlier to give one of the event’s most popular lectures on LSD microdosing.
The plan that Friday, August 16, was to record the interview in a conference room at the University of Greenwich, where the conference was being held, as Amanda was due to travel to her Jamaican home on Sunday (which did not happen).
But she cancelled because she needed to work. In this case she had a meeting with Brazilian neuroscientist Stevens Rehen through lunch and for most of the afternoon, to discuss the scientiﬁc collaboration that she today describes as her favourite.
Weeks before, she had had an accident while working in her London apartment at dawn. She suﬀered multiple fractures in her back, in the sacrum and iliac bones, which were only found weeks later. She also injured her arm, but she ignored it until her elbow began to swell.
An attempt to drain the ﬂuid broke her fragile skin and gave rise to an infection that antibiotics could not stop. When there was a risk of sepsis, hospitalization became inescapable. “It’s all about being a workaholic,” she said while laughing.
So much dedication goes into the Beckley Foundation, which she founded in 1998 with the dual purpose of restoring LSD’s prestige as a medicine, something that had been lost in the 1970s when lysergic acid was banned, and promoting drug policy reform around the world.
Amanda ﬁrst took LSD in 1965, when it was still legal, and was instantly convinced of the potential value of psychedelics. LSD went on to become her favourite: “I saw how it can go deep into the soul”. Her interest in altered states of consciousness, however, had begun much earlier.
Beckley, the foundation’s name, comes from her family home an hour from London. A beautiful, secluded, three-moated Tudor-style hunting lodge. “My parents had the house, but no money. We lived there without central heating, but it was a fun life. I turned into my own world. My interests were Buddhism, mysticism, that sort of thing” recalls the Countess.
Amanda attended the village school and then a nun’s boarding school, which denied her access to library works on Buddhism. At the age of 16, she decided to travel to Sri Lanka, with only 25 pounds in her bag, to ﬁnd her godfather who had become a Buddhist monk. She, however, was held back by adventures in the deserts of Egypt and Syria with Bedouin and Dervish dancers, and did not make it to Sri Lanka.
Upon returning to the United Kingdom, she devoted herself to studying comparative religions at Oxford. She found a mentor in Robert Charles Zaehner, who had written the book “Mysticism, Sacred and Profane.”
The professor had tried mescaline, a compound extracted from the Peyote cactus that opened for Aldous Huxley “The Doors of Perception.” Zaehner, however, had concluded that the psychedelic experience was diﬀerent from the mystical ecstasy achieved with dance, mantra, meditation, or fasting. “Then, when I took LSD, I realized it really was a mystical experience, very similar to that of mystics,” says Amanda.
Shortly after being introduced to LSD, she met Dutch researcher Bart Huges. With him she supported a theory to explain altered states of consciousness that would result from the enlargement of capillaries in the brain and the inﬂux of glucose and oxygen to nerve cells.
For Huges, this unimpeded circulation allowed the ego mechanism described by Sigmund Freud to relax, which in Huges’ view stemmed from a reﬂex conditioned on words and his senses that directed the blood to speciﬁc areas of the cortex, controlling what reaches consciousness.
Amanda fell in love with the idea, which still makes her eyes shine and led her, at that time, to undertake a trepanation. She drilled a hole in her skull to favour the natural pulsation of the capillaries. She launched her mind into the study of psychology, physiology and neuroscience, but in the style of the 1960s.
“I started to experiment. We lived oﬀ of LSD before it was illegal, studying diﬀerent aspects of humanity within ourselves. What makes human beings what they are, brilliant and at the same time, in a way, a disaster, with this neurosis and psychosis that underlies humanity,” she says.
“My passion has become to study the ego, its basic mechanisms, how it controls us. With psychedelics, one can get to the root of trauma. I spent three years psychoanalyzing myself, reading Freud and other authors, being a doctor and a patient at the same time.”
Today it is known that behind the action of LSD is its aﬀinity for the receptor 5-HT2A, speciﬁc for the neurotransmitter serotonin, important in mood regulation and also a vasoconstrictor. Although acid is associated with visual manifestations, the therapeutic potential now under investigation of the compound discovered in 1943 by Swiss Albert Hofmann has more to do with easier access to emotions, thoughts and memories including trauma usually unavailable to consciousness.
“We had to learn this unnatural behavior so that the monkey could hunt in groups. Self-control has allowed us to get to the moon and do what we do, but it also brings the curse that makes us a neurotic animal,” Amanda explains in her own way. “Who says the world we condition ourselves to has any meaning?”
For her, the conditioning of ego, the restraint it provides, raises a cloud, a veil, between humans and reality. That would make us a dangerous animal: “Who will condition us? We are not a reliable animal, but we are brilliant, a threat to ourselves and the rest of the planet.”
Anyone who has taken LSD recognizes the experience of relaxation from repression, which in the case of high doses is often described as ego dissolution. A thrill spreads from chest to mind, lowering defenses and ﬂooding it with unexpected memories, images, and emotions. Not always pleasant, for sure (hence the bad trips).
The demand for self-awareness in pills –in reality, soaked bits of paper, the “blots would become popular among young people of the 1960s in the counterculture movement. So popular in its corrosive impetus that it motivated the conservative backlash of the next decade, when reports of rare accidents proliferated and the demonized substance was outlawed everywhere.
The ban also terminated scientiﬁc experimentation with lysergic acid, which had shown promising results in the treatment of alcohol dependence. Amanda reports how she got rid of her nicotine addiction, after becoming addicted at age 13: “I decided to stop on an LSD trip, I never smoked a cigarette again. I saw how LSD could be used to boost one’s intention, to take it to a higher level.”
The countess says she saw the ban coming as “a serious mistake,” because it prevented the West from learning to employ psychedelicsand their full potential intelligently, as traditional people do. So Amanda decided that the only way forward was to do the best science and explore how these compounds work in the brain and can be of beneﬁt to humanity.
By the early 1980s, however, psychedelic research had become taboo, just as the term “consciousness” had become a bad word in the scientiﬁc world. Amanda says Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of the molecular structure of DNA, recommended to never mention the term in a grant application.
Her way out was to create an institution, the Beckley Foundation, to pursue what she considers her mission in life. She also hopes to fulﬁll her promise to Hofmann to rehabilitate his “problem child” (a title the Swiss chose for an autobiographical book on LSD).
Because it was impossible to do science with psychedelics, as researchers would lose jobs or grants, Amanda initially dedicated the foundation to riding a Trojan horse: changing global drug policy. “A disaster, a catastrophe, a cancer in the world destabilizing countries, causing deaths, terrible violence, corruption, public health problems.”
Her particular interest was psychedelics, placed in the same category as heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, all under one evil label, “drugs.” These are non-toxic compounds and incapable of causing dependence, though, contrary to what common sense dictates; they should therefore be removed from this category.
Beckley-sponsored seminars targeted politicians and personalities. They were inﬂuential in forming a review movement that would culminate in the Global Commission on Drug Policy. This group defends a science-based discussion of prohibitionism and includes names like Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Helen Clark, José Ramos-Horta, Juan Manuel Santos and Mario Vargas Llosa.
Amanda says she believes that in the ﬁeld of science, too, a turnaround has begun. It emerged discreetly in the 1990s with the advent of brain imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) and then functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
“A new, amazing tool. I grew up as an artist, as a painter, and I saw that images provided a correlate for what was going on in the brain, for subjective experience,” she recalls. “But to get access to brain imaging, I needed to collaborate with researchers.”
She already had, on Beckley’s board, renowned neuroscientists such as Colin Blakemore and David Nutt. With Blakemore, she sought to open a psychedelic study centre at the University of Oxford, but needed £4 million which Beckley could not raise.
At Imperial, a series of brain imaging studies were conducted on individuals under the inﬂuence of psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and DMT. Published results helped establish the idea that these compounds act by disabling the so-called default mode network (DMN), a communication circuit between speciﬁc neural regions associated with introspection, which becomes hyperactive and dysfunctional in various mental conditions such as depression.
The Beckley / Imperial program conducted the ﬁrst preliminary study to use mushroom psilocybin to treat patients with chronic depression resistant to available drugs (SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).
Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris, who now heads the Imperial center, achieved encouraging results: 8 out of 12 patients improved after one week and 7 reported beneﬁcial eﬀects three months later. But the test took place without a control group, in which some participants receive a placebo.
This is the gold standard in biomedical research, the double-blind scheme is somewhat hampered by the obvious eﬀects of psychedelics, which no placebo can mimic (it is clear to patients whether they took the drug or not).
The first study to compare psychedelics and placebo to treat depression was, in fact, a Brazilian group centered at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (abbreviated UFRN in Portuguese). Researchers at the UFRN Brain Institute published in 2018 a study of 29 depressed patients, 14 treated with ayahuasca (a brew containing the psychedelic DMT) and 15 with placebo. In the ﬁrst group, 9 showed improvement; in the second, only 4.
The lead researcher was Dráulio Araújo, with Luís Fernando Tófoli, from Unicamp as one of the co-authors. Araújo is collaborating in other psychedelic studies with Sidarta Ribeiro from the same UFRN Institute, and Stevens Rehen, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the D’Or Institute for Research and Teaching (IDOR) they form the quartet that Amanda Feilding is highly fond of.
“Today my favourite collaboration is with the Brazilian group. I knew Sidarta well, and obviously I needed to work with a neuroscientist named Sidarta,” jokes the woman who discovered altered states of consciousness through the Buddhist religion.
Together they are looking to investigate how LSD aﬀects the creation of neurons (neurogenesis and neuroplasticity), and therefore might entail learning and cognitive enhancement including in humans. “With the Brazilians we will expand this with Stevens using mini brains and Siddhartha using rats. It’s a brilliant team to work with: open, energetic, wonderful, and exciting.”
Such studies will “incredibly” deepen our understanding, the Countess hopes, of how these compounds, especially LSD, can be valuable even in other areas. In particular neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
With their preclinical studies the Brazilian group holds a special place within the Beckley Foundation’s Research Programme. The foundation has two other arms in the program.
One is microdosing, the continued use of LSD in smaller quantities, a fashion that spread across Silicon Valley and of which Amanda is also a pioneer. This is a collaboration with the University of Maastricht.
“I’ve always called LSD a psychovitamin, because it expands how you feel, improves your mood. You think better, become more focused, more interested in your own thoughts, relationships become more interesting because of the various points of view,” she argues.
She is interested in studying microdoses in various ﬁelds: creativity, pain, cognitive rescue of people slipping into dementia. “Maybe we can prevent cognitive decline at old age.”
The other arm, clinical studies of LSD-assisted psychotherapy, targets new ways of treating opioid and alcohol dependence, as well as depression and anxiety in terminally ill patients. Amanda has started or is looking for partnerships with universities and institutes in various countries, from Australia, Spain and the USA to the UK, Russia and Switzerland. Besides Brazil, of course.
To accomplish all her plans, she estimates that Beckley would need £ 1.5 million to £ 2 million a year. “Peanuts, for rich people.” Just to pay salaries and keep studies going, it’s £400,000 a year.
“When insanity [prohibition] sets in, it takes a long time to be undone. Luckily, I think we are in a better period, overcoming that. I hope it doesn’t take another 50 years. I want to do a lot of good research over the next ﬁve years.”
Science, for her, is the new religion. We lost religion and we gained science, she says. What is wrong with humanity, she believes, lies in our brains. Something must be poorly organized there. How to improve consciousness? “Through these gifts, the fruits of the gods.”